The Eisenhower Matrix

December 11th, 2018 By: Ash

The Eisenhower Matrix

As you head into the new year it might be worthwhile considering Eisenhower’s approach to task prioritization. This approach was made popular by Stephen Covey and later came to be known as the four quadrants approach. 

The underlying idea is based on Eisenhower’s premise which was that urgent stuff is seldom important and important stuff is seldom urgent.

The key takeaway is to focus on what’s important (but usually not urgent). This is what tends to help you make the big strategic gains in your business or life, and if you don’t consciously focus on these priorities they don’t get done leaving you with little long-term progress.

 

Examples of quadrant 1 activities (Urgent and Important). These tend to be crises and you want to handle them before they get to this point. 

  • A heart attack
  • Child in hospital
  • Crisis at work which could result in you losing your job if not resolved immediately

For example, if you stick to regular fitness routine (as we’ll see in the next quadrant) then you’re less likely to have a heart attack.

Sure, you can never completely eliminate all urgent and important tasks, but you can significantly reduce the likelihood of them occurring.

How?

By being proactive and spending more time in quadrant 2.

Examples of quadrant 2 activities: Not Urgent but important. These are tasks aligned with your overall mission and have a strong “value-add” component.

Some examples:

If you stick to a regular exercise routine — i.e. execute on tasks while they are important but not yet urgent (Quadrant 2), you’re far less likely to get a heart attack — i.e. You’ve dealt with your health by exercising regularly and averted a (Quadrant 1) crisis – a heart attack.

Ideally, you want to spend as much time on quadrant 2 activities as possible. But to do this you need to understand your values and goals to know what’s truly important.

Examples of quadrant 3 activities: Urgent but Not Important. This is stuff that requires your attention now but isn’t really aligned with your long-term goals. Think interruptions, distractions, and generally directionless effort.

Some examples:

  • Lengthy phone calls (often open-ended discussions)
  • Responding to text messages constantly
  • Lengthy meetings with no agenda or planned outcomes

According to Stephen Covey, many people spend most of their time on Q3 tasks thinking they’re working on Q1 tasks. These Q3 tasks often involve other people and give us a false sense of purpose and achievement because we walk away with the feeling of having ‘helped someone’.

It’s fine and normal to spend some time each day in the third quadrant. But it’s particularly damaging to spend most of your time in Q3 particularly if you think you’re operating in Q1.

The solution? Learn to say no.

Be very selective about tasks that you take on. Plan your day the night before, when you’re emotionally uninvolved, and stick to the plan unless you’re hit with an emergency.

Examples of quadrant 4: Not Urgent and Not Important. Think downtime and recreational activities.

Examples include:

  • Checking Facebook
  • Looking at cute cat photos
  • Watching TV shows

 

Don’t get me wrong. You need downtime. We all do.

But make sure these Q4 activities don’t take over your day. Fence them off in your calendar — preferably towards the end of the day.

 

Key takeaways

  • Before using the Eisenhower matrix you need to get clear on what’s urgent and what’s important. And this really comes down to understanding your role (and your stakeholders’ roles) in context of your wider organization. If you can’t get this right, you won’t be able to differentiate between the urgent stuff and the important stuff.
  • Once you’re clear on the urgent vs important tasks, the next priority is to aim to spend most of your time in quadrant 2. (More on this in the last point)
  • The best way to do this? Learn to be assertive and say “no” to quadrant 3 tasks. For example, before you accept a meeting invitation make sure you understand what the outcomes are. Make it a point not to attend meetings unless there’s a clear agenda, and your presence is actually required.
  • Fence off the quadrant 4 tasks in your calendar, preferably towards the end of the day.
  • And most importantly, spend as much time as you possibly can in quadrant 2. Do the important stuff that’s aligned to your long-term vision. Do your best to get to it before it becomes overwhelmingly urgent and gives you a heart attack!

 

What are your thoughts on task prioritization? How do you decide on your to-do list?

 

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Productive Insights (PI) offers valuable productivity related content to busy people who want to win back a few hours each week. It also discusses mindfulness in daily life which is aimed at creating a deeper sense of purpose and meaning in everyday activities.

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